Musical Adventures with Michael Colgrass

Daniel Albert | January 2009

    My journey into the world of creativity for children started in July 2002 at the Art of Wind Band Teaching Symposium, sponsored by Craig Kirchhoff and the University of Minnesota School of Music. The opening presentation featured wind band composer Michael Col­grass, a Pulitzer Prize winner who told us about his Winona Drive School project. He explained how he helped groups of Toronto middle school students create soundscapes, music notated with graphic symbols that approximated sounds. In addition, the Winona Drive School Band tested his now famous composition, Old Churches (BandQuest).

Creating a Soundscape
    During the Minnesota workshop, Michael asked the band directors to create a soundscape composition just as the Winona students had. First, everyone had to think of an abstract sound, and then a volunteer went to a large whiteboard to draw an abstract image of that sound.
    The parameters for the piece were simple: the soundscape would start at the left of the whiteboard and end at the right. Symbols for high sounds would be placed towards the top of the whiteboard and low sounds towards the bottom.
    For example, if a person thought of a long whoo sound (going from a high head voice to low and back up), he might draw a snaking line with an arrow starting from the top left of the whiteboard, continuing down to the middle of it, then creeping back up towards the top right end of the whiteboard. If he used dots to represent short sounds, the volume and pitch of each sound would depend on the size of the dot and its position on the soundscape.
    With only a few parameters to creating the soundscape, everyone could be creative. One person volunteered and drew an abstract symbol on the whiteboard representing the music, which the audience sang. After some laughter that broke the   ice, other participants went to the whiteboard, filling the growing composition with a dizzying variety of symbols that became a beautiful piece of art.
    The matter of how to perform this untraditional composition was next. Michael asked for a volunteer to direct the group, reminding us that there would be no one correct interpretation of the work. The band director who stepped up to the whiteboard divided the soundscape into four sections and then the group into four sections; he assigned each group an equal portion of the soundscape, and each person selected the symbol he would sing.
    The conductor moved his hand slowly from left to right across the board indicating the beginning of each sound. As his hand approached each symbol, the person assigned to it would start to perform it, and as his hand moved past it, the person stopped.
    After some brief instructions and clarifications, the conductor began his hand motion, with the participants producing an incredible mix of thick and thin timbres. They ranged from high whistles to low pedal tones. It was a marvel to witness and musical in its own right.
    After hearty congratulations from Michael, another leader directed the group but with an entirely different interpretation. This time the conductor divided the soundscape in half horizontally, with the women singing the symbols in the top half of the whiteboard while the men sang the symbols in the bottom half. The soundscape took on a different character and changed dramatically.

Composing with Imagined Sounds
    After several interpretations, Michael told us that this was basically what he did for a living.
He explained that he imagines sounds in a similar way to what the group did, then uses traditional music notation on a staff to assign pitches and rhythms to instruments based on the timbres, textures, and other details he wants to hear.
    He went to the whiteboard and drew in clefs and music staffs, and then added rhythms and pitches over the shapes we had created. At that point we could see that our drawings and shapes could be carried to on to a higher musical level; our scribblings were actually the sum and substance of the form and content of a composition, albeit with less specific notation.
    Michael went on to say that composing begins by imagining a sound, then creating another sound, and another, organizing and refining them until he has a satisfying structure. The same idea applies to soundscapes. Michael pointed out that by using this type of abbreviated form of notation, children could create music quickly, often being as creative as adults. Whether using conventional or graphic notation, the process is the same.

New Music in Longmeadow
    I found myself hooked on Michael’s ideas and  thought his method could be used by students of all ages. It easily engages them in being creative and in the compositional process, at first bypassing the need to learn traditional musical notation, which can be time consuming to teach and overwhelming for beginners. With this ap­proach, students create their own musical shorthand, which is a creativity exercise on its own. From there, teachers can demonstrate that traditional notation is a more detailed and exact method of communicating the sounds of a graphic notation soundscape.
    I was also intrigued with the different tasks students had to undertake during this process. In addition to creating new sounds and a new method of notating them, they used both logic and intuition to create a satisfying balance of sounds as a composition took shape. The conducting aspect of this process encouraged communication, leadership skills, decision making by the group, and a feeling of ownership of the music. In other words, students have to do the very same things a conductor does.
    Before the opening of school that year, I heard about a new local grant organization, the Long­meadow Educational Ex­cellence Foundation, that was starting its first round of grant applications. My thoughts immediately went to the Colgrass presentation and the idea that through Michael’s method, I could involve as many Longmeadow students as possible in a new kind of musical experience.
    I met with the other middle and high school instrumental music directors in my district, Chris­topher Unczur and Michael Mucci. Both were enthusiastic about the possibility of involving their students in a composition project similar to that of the Winona Drive project in addition to having their ensembles perform a commissioned work by Colgrass.
    I immediately contacted Michael Colgrass, and we agreed on a price for one composition plus two residencies. The first residency, The Creativity Project, would introduce the composition project to the other music teachers and the students; it would also give the band members a chance to try out the parts of the newly commissioned work. During a second residency, Michael would work individually with student composers as well as help them with the final touches of the commissioned work. A Commissioned Work Concert at the end of the project would include his piece and the premieres of pieces by student composers.

Grant Application
    The Longmeadow Edu­cational Ex­cellence Foun­dation, the grant organization, was looking for unusual ideas to fund, and this one was quite unusual. The foundation’s executive board was a group of parents whose occupations were in the areas of law, business, and medicine. While in­trigued with the proposal, the board requested clarification about the commission process and re­quested a legal document clearly detailing the re­s-ponsibilities of each of the parties.
    After meeting several times to discuss how the commissioning project would work, as well as promising a specific and signed contract, the foundation approved the project with its full support. The project would start in Sep­tember 2003 with the Commissioned Work Con­cert held in December.
    Michael requested information that would help middle-school instrumentalists perform his composition, such as the ideal range for each instrument played by middle-school students, the exact instrumentation of an ideal ensemble as well as my own ensemble, and common difficulties students typically have with certain rhythms, melodies, and harmonies. He wanted to be sure this composition would be performed correctly the first time.
    He kept me abreast of the progress of the commissioned work, asking what was possible to write for middle school instrumentalists, what was questionable, and what was out of the question. We also exchanged ideas regarding the Creativity Project on nearly a daily basis.
     The Longmeadow Educational Excellence Foundation contacted the media so they could write articles and devote air time to describe Michael’s upcoming residencies and the project’s goals to the community. The public relations staff of the foundation was outstanding with its help to publicize all of the events. Students grew interested and intrigued when we announced the residencies for the projects, and Chris Unczur and Michael Mucci gave their thoughts on the overall vision and scope of the event.

A Second Commissioned Piece
    In the late spring of 2003, Michael wrote to say that in addition to the commissioned work, he was also composing a piece for beginning band titled Apache Lullaby, based on the melodies of Native American songs, to perform at the Commissioned Work Concert. After thanking him for his generosity, I discussed the idea of a new work with Chris, who enthusiastically agreed to have his ensemble perform it.
    Throughout the summer of 2003 Michael and I continued to exchange ideas and information. When he completed the commissioned work, The Beethoven Machine, I drove to his residence in Toronto to meet him, review the score, and suggest possible changes as well as form a tentative plan for the Creativity Project.
    Looking at the music, I thought The Beethoven Machine would be a good challenge for my group. Based on a sonatina that Beethoven wrote as a child, it had independent lines and just enough duplication in the parts to foster the idea of interdependence and teamwork. There were also interesting harmonic, textural, and timbral changes. After Michael and I corrected possible pitfalls and approved the final draft, I drove back to Long­meadow excited about the upcoming opening of school and starting work on The Beethoven Machine and the Creativity Project.

The Creativity Project Begins
    Chris, Michael Mucci, and I met to review the rehearsal and performance plans that Colgrass and I had developed. Next we agreed on how to approach and advance the Creativity Project during re­hearsals and in between the residencies. Chris received the score to Apache Lullaby and immediately started to analyze it.
    Once school started I dove into The Beethoven Machine with my group. The rehearsals, however, did not go according to plan. There were just too many independent lines and unorthodox harmonies for middle school students to understand and listen for. I talked with Michael on the telephone almost daily, brainstorming strategies to improve the band’s performance and understanding of the work. With the first residency coming up, he wanted to listen to a rehearsal of the work and then judge whether the piece was too difficult to spend time on.
    Michael’s first residency in late September 2003 began with a Sunday workshop for all of the Long­meadow music educators, K-12, to explain the Creativity Project, discuss the theories behind it, and describe the process he planned for the students. Teachers had the fun of creating their own soundscape and asking questions about how to include composition in their classes and ensembles. A further discussion ensued comparing this technique to the work of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, who was well known in the last half of the 20th century.
    The following day Michael met the 115 members of the Longmeadow High School Concert Band. It would be a test of his theories to engage the thoughts of sleepy students at 7:45 in the morning. All were quiet and attentive as Michael spoke, briefly explaining that they would create a piece of music right there on the spot using graphics, but without detailing how. It piqued everyone’s curiosity and left their minds open for myriad possibilities. Almost anything could happen.
    When Michael asked for a leader to start the process, one brave student stood up, took the chalk from Michael’s hand, and made a mark on the chalkboard. There were giggles when he sang it, but then another student followed, and eventually the chalkboard was filled with graphics. The result was as much a work of visual art as it was a musical composition.
    Next a student conducted the class through his interpretation of the graphics, with all manner of sounds emanating from the musicians for 30 seconds, followed by silence. Cheers erupted all around from the smiling students. Others took turns at the podium as the class realized that the piece could be performed in many ways.
Michael linked this process to what he experiences on a regular basis. He challenged the students to study composition through the graphic notation process and to begin writing graphic notation pieces for ensemble performance. The room was filled with thoughts of possibility and optimism. He repeated this entire process with many of the high school ensembles and most of the middle school ensembles in my district. The creativity and imaginations of the students was fascinating to watch.

Apache Lullaby
    In addition to the Creativity Project, the concert bands at the Williams and Glenbrook middle schools had to play their commissioned works for Michael. Apache Lullaby for beginning band was off to a great start, although it had a level of independence that was difficult for the students. After a brief introduction about the music, Michael listened to each section and helped with suggestions about what to listen for and which sections should dominate at certain times. Students, he said, would have to open their ears and listen, as well as think at all times.
    My middle school band at Williams played The Beethoven Ma­chine for Michael with some success, but not at the level we should have after three weeks of rehearsals. Michael gave as much coaching, prodding, and encouragement as possible; but it was apparent that the group would not be able to polish the piece in just three months.
    Later Michael showed me sketches of a work he was drafting in case The Beethoven Ma­chine fell through. The new piece, Gotta Make Noise, drew on his jazz roots, and because I had 12 percussionists in concert band, he wrote what was basically a percussion concerto with parts for up to 12 percussionists. Each player, especially the snare, conga, and tom players, had solos.
    Right from the start I thought the piece had great potential because the rhythms were simple with an abundance of tutti playing from the ensemble, similar to shout choruses of big band charts. The percussionists were active throughout the work playing syncopated rhythms with hip harmonies and contrasting sections. I thought it was a highly educational work for the jazz idiom that also sounded great. “Let’s do it!” I said.

Rehearsals Continue
    As Michael flew back to Toronto, the directors in all three schools continued working with the Creativity Project and rehearsing the commissioned pieces, keeping Michael’s comments in mind. The Beethoven Machine would now be performed by the Longmeadow High School Wind Ensemble under the direction of Michael Mucci, meaning the wind ensembles from three schools had a work to perform. Now, even more students would be involved in the project.
    The instrumental students in the high school and both middle schools created a variety of graphic notation pieces, which the bands performed during rehearsals. This was an ongoing process and many students continued writing, further pursuing their interests in composition.
    The months of October and November were full of hard work. Students at Williams had weekly sectionals to catch up after missing a month of rehearsal time because of work on The Beethoven Machine. The public relations staff of the Long­meadow Educational Ex­cellence Foundation put together press kits for the second Colgrass residency and the upcoming Colgrass Commissioned Works Concert on December 11. We wanted everyone in the area to know that something special was going to happen.

The Second Residency
    Michael arrived for his second residency, December 8-12, ready to work individually with student composers and assist with the development of their compositions in addition to rehearsing the ensembles and being present for the Commissioned Works Concert. Michael was to help each ensemble put the final touches on the commissioned works, so it was to be a busy week.
    At Glenbrook Middle School, Chris Unczur had worked out the technical details of  impressing Michael with how well the children played. Now the composer could coach them in stylistic aspects of the work. The rehearsal was an absolute success. For the visit to the Williams school, students played Gotta Make Noise very well. There were more rhythmic issues with this piece, especially coordinating 12 percussionists playing jazz rhythms. They also needed to work on keeping up the intensity throughout the piece. To encourage the students to use their voices as strongly as possible, Michael demonstrated by yelling out their parts like a cheerleader at a basketball game; then he whispered loudly to show the players how much air was necessary to project the contrasting shhhh sounds.
     The high school wind ensemble did a great job at capturing the contrasting ideas in The Beethoven Machine. In addition to coaching these rehearsals, Michael met one-on-one with the middle school students who had composed graphic notation pieces. Imagine the experience for these children of having a private lesson with a Pulitzer Prize winning composer! He took each piece to the next level by making suggestions so the students had choices, instead of forcing them into a particular route.

The Concert
     The media were in the schools throughout the week of the final residency with reporters writing articles giving a preview of the concert. After reviewing the final details with students and having a dress rehearsal, the day of the Commissioned Works Concert arrived. On the night of December 11, the auditorium of Long­meadow High School was abuzz with excitement. Students were ready, dir-ectors were excited, and audience members were looking forward to listening to Michael Colgrass’s three world premiere performances. Little did they know they would have seven premieres, including the four graphic pieces by students. They were in for a great show.
     After introductions from a Longmeadow Edu­cational Ex­cellence Foundation representative and the Longmeadow band directors, Michael took over as emcee of the event explaining briefly the Creativity Project and its process. Four student composers demonstrated their pieces, with the first student using an overhead projection screen to show the graphic score so the audience could follow as it was performed. Three others stepped to the podium to conduct their compositions with the high school wind ensemble and the high school string orchestra. The audience was extremely receptive and gave generous applause to all of the young composers. The ensembles fabulously performed Michael’s compositions, for which the audience gave an incredible ovation.
     A post-concert reception followed, with many parents thanking Michael and the directors for their work in making this event possible. Many commented on the great music and on what they learned about the art and craft of composition. Michael and all the directors were thrilled by the praise-worthy comments.
     Friday was a debriefing day. We asked students their opinions as to how the concert went, what went well, and what could be improved with the concert and with the composition projects. The students gave overwhelmingly positive feedback for the entire process, and parents wrote thank-you notes for days afterwards. Articles in the local and regional media covering the concert showed that the entire process was extremely powerful for all of us in music education.
     After a farewell dinner, we said goodbye to Michael. The spirit of his visit, however, remains as students continue to compose and refine their compositions. We perform them in rehearsals to help each young composer in his creative quest, maintaining Michael’s intent to keep the project going. It was such a fine experience working with a talented professional like Michael, who has great concern that all children have a solid music education.
     If you have the opportunity, consider having a commissioning project or a similar venture in your school. It begins simply by contacting a composer. For those of you who live close to a collegiate music department, invite a member of the composition department to rehearsals or concerts and let them know you are serious about creating more serious works for young band.
     There are also a number of up-and-coming composers who would be eager to write for children and are looking for stimulating projects. Experienced directors at the middle, high school, or collegiate level will be able to offer you guidance in the commissioning process. Raising money or securing a grant takes time and effort, but the overall musical experience pays dividends that are worth it.
     You and your students will be forever changed by the experience of collaborating with a composer to bring a new work of art to life. As one teacher who heard our Commissioned Works Concert said, “If the children could learn to do this much in a few months, imagine how much more they can learn.”